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Cutting room the, p.35
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       CUTTING ROOM -THE-, p.35

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  He closed his eyes. Now he would beg Vance Collier to make that deal.

  He’d spoken with Dom and there was nothing new to report. He had talked to C.J. She had not been contacted by Bantling. There was no indication he was in her area, wherever that was. She was coming back to Chicago in a few days. He was in talks with the federal witness protection program. Dom was hoping that things would turn around for them now. Good luck with that, Manny had said.

  How ironic. The rapist who had torn Dom’s relationship with his wife apart might just be the one responsible for reuniting them. A happy ending of sorts. Manny wasn’t sure how happy it would ever be though, given that Bantling was still out there. How happy can one be in witness protection?

  The front door opened then. As his mother watched from the doorway, Talbot Lunders walked out, keys in hand, and got into the Benz. The same car that probably still had dust from where crime-scene techs had lifted Holly Skole’s fingerprints off the interior door handle. The same car that had driven her to her death. Manny gripped the steering wheel hard. It took all his strength not to get out of the car and beat the information he knew was in that piece of shit’s good-looking head while his weird mother watched. The mother who he suspected Daria was right about all along. The anonymously emailed video clip of Gabby Vechio’s murder was a ruse. A diversion to get them to start looking in other directions at other possible suspects. A perfect set-up for a reasonable doubt argument if the case went to trial. The fact that it had led to a Brady violation and Talbot’s release on bond was a bonus. There was just no way to prove it.

  As the gates opened and the Benz slowly backed out of the long driveway, Manny started up his car and popped a Red Bull. He waited until Talbot had zipped off down the block and the front door had closed before heading out behind him, hoping, as he had for the past five sleepless nights, that the bastard might eventually lead him to Daria.

  59

  It must be an omen, Bill thought, looking up at the sky.

  The stars were gone. The black night sky was just … black. Or more like smoky gray. The thick clouds had moved in early and had stolen all the light from the sky. Heaven, it seemed, had shut down early for business tonight.

  How appropriate.

  He crouched in his spot in her backyard, dressed in black and hidden by the thick shrubs and tall trees, a brand-new bag of tricks at his side. A brand-new smiley face to wear when they finally met once again, up close and personal.

  He wondered if she’d found his present yet. A tuft of hair cut from the latex clown mask that he’d picked up at a Party City. He’d spread it out underneath her sheets, so that when she climbed into bed she’d know he’d been in it. She’d feel it, tickling her skin. Like in that fairytale, The Princess and the Pea, the pretty little princess with the golden hair just can’t seem to get comfy because someone had hidden something in her bed. Or, maybe the scene would be more like one ripped from the Godfather, when the movie producer wakes up in horror to find himself awash in blood and his beloved horse’s head under the covers with him. It was funny that, after all she’d been through, she sent her big, bad and mean doggie off to camp to play every day, leaving the castle without any defense except a useless alarm that a street-kid with a pair of pliers could outsmart. The dog was probably more like the kid she couldn’t have than the guard dog it was intended to be. Maybe, Bill hoped, she’d get up to go to the bathroom and find her sexy legs covered in strands of flaming orange polyester hair when she flicked on the light. That would be something to see. While Bill would’ve loved to have left the ex’s bloody head under her sheets as a token of his love for her, former Special Agent Falconetti had skipped town before he could get him alone. Chloe must have shooed him out of her life once again. The poor fellow must have signed those very public papers, papers she’d filed in that very public courthouse back in Chicago, asking for a divorce. Sad.

  If she hadn’t caught on yet that he was in town, finding the clown hair would surely send her over the edge. And that was exactly what he wanted to see — his old Chloe, walking that fine line between the rest of the world and sheer madness. Going crazy because she knew he was near. Because she knew that he had found her. His fingers went to the knife in his pocket and waited for a sign from Grandma’s house. But the house stayed dark. Maybe she was sitting on the couch with a gun on her lap waiting for him to crawl through her window. Maybe the stress had already gotten to her. Maybe she had used a bullet on herself.

  When he worked at Sal’s Pizzeria in Bayside, New York, so many years ago, he would watch her from the kitchen when she’d come in with her friends or her boyfriend. Flirty, giggly, sexy. And so, so pretty. He knew that she went to law school from the books she carried around and the sweatshirt she wore, and he knew that she must be smart, too. She was the whole package. Everyone wanted to be around her — even the waitresses wanted to wait on her. She was magnetic and Bill was drawn to her. Then one day he’d delivered a pie to an apartment on Rocky Hill Road and she’d opened the door. He was so taken by her, seeing her up close, that he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t even say thank you when she’d tipped him three dollars and flashed him a smile. He’d gone back to the car and jerked off with her tip money in his hand.

  He’d often wondered if they would’ve gotten together the old-fashioned way if he’d ever summoned up the balls to ask her out. If he’d asked her to dinner, would she have said yes? Would they have dated? Would they still be together? Would they be married? Would his life be any different?

  But he hadn’t. So much for asking questions that could never be answered.

  She was so pretty and nice and so perfect that she was unapproachable. No man could ask her out. No man would have the balls. And that was really what had pissed him off.

  So he had taken her.

  Then he’d watched as her life floundered and the fear consumed her. She wasn’t pretty anymore, or sexy, or flirty, or fun, or smart, or anything. She never went out, she didn’t become a lawyer, the boyfriend dumped her. She broke apart. And that, Bill had realized with amusement, had been real fun to watch. Almost more fun than fucking her had been.

  Then she up and disappeared one day. He went by her apartment and she was gone. Just gone. When he saw her again, twelve years later, she was a different woman. Brown hair and glasses, frumpy suits and a bitchy attitude. She was a hard-ass prosecutor and she was hellbent on revenge. She’d turned the tables on him, yes. But not for long.

  He was out now.

  And he was here.

  He checked his watch. It was after one. He reached for his smiley face. Then the garage door quietly slid open. The light did not go on. If he hadn’t been watching the house, he might have missed it.

  But he hadn’t.

  He looked down in his bag where the small silver beeper had sprung to life, flashing red, like a ticking bomb, counting down the seconds and minutes until time ran out. Then he watched in the darkness as her car backed out of the driveway ever so slowly with its lights off and drove past him into the gray, starless night.

  60

  C.J. turned on to Cathedral Oaks Drive, heading toward State Road 154. The side streets were quiet, but SR154, also known as San Marcos Pass, was completely deserted. And pitch-black. A two-lane highway cutting through the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest, SR154 was a true mountain pass. There were no traffic signals or street lights to illuminate the roadway; no homes or businesses around for miles. The highway was a relatively narrow swath of asphalt that cut through a thick green forest and an intimidating mountain range. C.J. had driven that way many times — there were dozens of desolate trails she and Luna had hiked that sprouted off the back roads that snaked through Los Padres. It was also the scenic route that ran through the rural Santa Barbara wine country and into Los Olivos — home to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch.

  There was no one at all on the road. It wasn’t crowded in the day. After ten at night, it was as desolate as the surrounding wood
s. She swallowed hard, rehearsing in her mind what it was she was about to do. God forbid she should hit a deer or a bear out here. That would be terrible any day; it would be catastrophic tonight. No, tonight, things had to go perfect. In fifty miles or so, after she passed through Los Olivos, SR154 would wind and catch up again with Highway 101, the main north–south coastal thoroughfare that ran up through San Francisco and ultimately to the Oregon/California border. She was heading north. At either Paso Robles or Salinas she could cut west and catch up with I5, a major interstate that would bring her into Nevada, or maybe up into Oregon and then Washington.

  If she got that far.

  ‘Oregon, Luna,’ she said absently to her pooch, who was sleeping in the back seat. ‘I think it rains too much in Oregon.’

  She spotted the flicker of headlights in her rearview before she even hit Painted Cave Road, a paved two-lane road that led up to the preserved caves of the Chumash Indians. The headlights were a mile or so back. Possibly further. She felt her throat close.

  Was it him? Or could it be some other guy out for a drive in the middle of the night, or headed home to Santa Ynez or one of the few remote homes that feathered off Painted Cave and San Marcos Pass?

  Even before he flashed his brights at her with a wink, her gut already knew the answer: not many people took the scenic route at one a.m. — with the thick cloud cover, there was no way to make out so much as a mountain in the darkness. She gripped the steering wheel and sped up. The headlights went in and out of view behind her as the car made its twists and turns around the mountains. But the headlights faded further and further in her rearview as she pulled ahead. The driver was not trying to keep up.

  She held her breath, her eyes practically glued on the rearview. Maybe it wasn’t him. Come on, disappear. Turn off. Let me be wrong. Let’s move on to Plan B. Because I don’t know if I have the stomach for Plan A …

  When she figured the car had finally reached the Painted Cave turnoff, the headlights disappeared completely. It was black behind her. She held her breath, waiting for them to come back on and continue their determined trek up the mountain. Nothing. Seconds felt like minutes. She let out a measured breath. She went on for a couple of miles. Then headlights lit up behind her once more in the far-off distance, the driver flashing his brights at her erratically, perhaps in some kind of code.

  Her mouth went dry and she knew it was him. Just as she’d known it was him sitting out there in the darkness of her grandmother’s woods, waiting for her. Just as she knew he had been in the house. Moving her bread, touching her pictures. She wasn’t even shocked when she saw the clown hair in her bed. Terrified, but not shocked.

  She would never lose him. She would never outrun him. On winding mountain roads or crowded New York streets. No matter where she went, she would always be looking in her rearview mirror, remembering the words he had whispered to her years ago as she lay on sheets drenched in her own blood. Promises that she knew he intended to keep.

  I’ll always be close by, Chloe. Watching. And waiting for you. Then we’ll have another good time, you and me.

  And if she were to call the feds? Tell them she thought he was behind her, flashing his lights at her in code? Assuming they could get here in the nick of time, assuming he could be caught once again and taken back to Miami before he made good on those terrifying promises of his, there were more appeals to be filed. More deals to be made. He had gotten out once. He had won a new trial before. And but for the corruption of a Florida Supreme Court judge, he would have had one. C.J. knew he could very well win round two. Plus, the information he had on a snuff club and its powerful members had been enough to buy him his freedom once. It would again, despite his escape. Her old colleagues at the SAO had sold out once. If it meant taking down an international snuff club, they would again. At the very least, Bantling’s cooperation would mean a drastic reduction in his sentence. It would move him off death row forever, to a cell where he could count down the days until he was free again. And once he was out, he would hunt her down, like a programmed Terminator. He would not stop until she was dead.

  A dozen scenarios ran through her crazed head. All of them led to the same conclusion. She would never be safe. She would never be normal.

  She sped up and watched as his lights faded away again. A creepy thought came to her. What if he had put a tracker on the car? What if he could stay at the same speed, let her hit the gas into freaking Canada because he didn’t need to follow her? All he had to do was sit back and follow the Yellow Bleep Road to the next place she laid down stakes? Maybe that was why the car behind her didn’t need to speed up to follow her.

  She turned off on to Kinevan, a remote single-lane paved road that ran into the dense Los Padres National Forest. Further along, Kinevan turned into West Camino Cielo, as it followed a ridge-top path through the Santa Ynez Mountains. After a mile or so, the asphalt ended and the road turned to gravel and dirt, then dirt and brush. She had run trails with Luna that spawned off Camino Cielo while hiking up to Brush Peak. There was never anything or anyone out there. It was a deserted no man’s land. Given what she did for a living, C.J. had often wondered while she was hiking what secrets might be buried away under the thick, unforgiving brush, deep in the trees. She turned off the lights and pulled over.

  It was time to stop running.

  She got out of the car and quickly popped the hood. She ran a flashlight up and down the engine, but she had no way of telling. If he’d hard-wired it, it could look like a fuel pump for all she knew.

  Fear pulsed through her veins. The cold mountain air was biting. She flipped on her cell. No service. She was all alone.

  She walked around the car, pacing, looking out on to the darkness. What the hell was she doing? Miles from anyone and anything, standing on the ridge of a black mountain, waiting for a human predator to hunt her down like a wounded animal. Her brain flip-flopped again. She couldn’t do this …

  Get back in the car. Get to civilization. Call Dominick. Stay in a well-lit place till he comes to save you. Flee the scene. Get a new identity. Start life over. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

  Off in the brush, in the canyon below, she heard the wind howl and the unfamiliar sounds of wildlife: guttural chirps, the rustle of a lizard or a snake, the scamper of a raccoon or a skunk moving about somewhere. Or perhaps something much larger.

  Don’t panic, whatever you do, she told herself, shaking in the cold. She buried her hands in her jacket. It’s way too late for that. You’re already committed. You’re up here. He’s been tracking you. To this exact spot. You need to throw him off his game. Think! Think!

  If he’d tracked her, he would pick something nice and easy. Something magnetized.

  She stopped pacing. She was losing her mind up here. It was too dark. She still had time. She would see the headlights at least a mile or two before they made it up the mountain. No way could he negotiate that ridge in the dark.

  She got down on her back and scooted underneath the Jeep.

  61

  She shone her flashlight on the tiny silver bump on the underbelly of her front bumper. A small red light gave it away. She was right — he’d stuck it on.

  So she pulled it off — and smashed it into pieces with the butt of her flashlight.

  As she started to pull herself out from underneath the car, the soft, seemingly far-off crunch of gravel stopped her dead, she switched off the flashlight as if by instinct, her body half-suspended as she clung to the bumper. Had she really heard that? Was it the wind in the trees? Was it an animal? She dropped back down softly on the floor and held her breath to listen. It was a repetitive crunch, very soft, but lumbering. Definitely footsteps. Something or someone was approaching and it wasn’t a snake or a lizard. It was something that could walk. The question was, was it a deer or a wild boar, maybe? A bear or a mountain lion?

  Or was it human?

  Black bears were everywhere around Los Padres. Freaking out a bear — or worse, a mountain lion — was not a
good idea. She looked all around the underside of the car. It was too dark to see anything.

  She held her breath, straining to listen. She could hear her heartbeat whooshing in her ears. Time stood still.

  The crunch stopped.

  She lay there under her car, eyes darting everywhere, not knowing what to do. This was not the position she wanted to be in. Even though she’d disabled the GPS, if he’d seen her pull off, he could be driving down the pass and up the ridge at this very moment. There were not many turnoffs on 154; it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out where she might have turned. If that wasn’t him out there already crunching his way toward her, he would be up here soon enough and she had to be on her feet when he got here. But if she stepped out and came face to face with a bear, that wasn’t going to end pretty, either.

  Think, damn it! You’re smarter than him. He will not win. He will not win. You will, this time.

  One hand held on to the underside of the bumper, and the other went to the inside pocket of her jacket. She felt the cold butt of the gun in her fingertips. She pulled it out with a shaking hand.

  And she prayed for strength as the strange footfalls drew closer.

  62

  Every sense was on high alert. She strained to pinpoint exactly where the footsteps were coming from. The wind was blowing harder now, carrying off and mixing up sounds. Tricking her frazzled brain. Whistling at her. Howling. Shrieking. Closer. Farther away. To her left, to her right. All around her. Yet she couldn’t see shit. It was completely black. Without a flashlight she couldn’t tell if the foot that might be right in front of her face was furry or a sneaker. And she didn’t dare turn her flashlight on.

 
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